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Art Review

A pastoral drenched in feeling

MFA’s Millet exhibition celebrates a 19th-century France he soulfully illuminated

Jean-François Millet’s “Path Through the Wheat,’’ part of a small exhibit of the artist’s works at the Museum of Fine Arts. Jean-François Millet’s “Path Through the Wheat,’’ part of a small exhibit of the artist’s works at the Museum of Fine Arts. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / September 10, 2010

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Boston has enjoyed a 140-year love affair with Jean-François Millet. Contemplating a work like Millet’s “Path Through the Wheat,’’ it’s not hard to fathom why.

A man carrying a hoe walks along a path toward a farmhouse in the distance. So tall is the wheat on either side of the narrow path that only his upper body is visible. The sky is distantly blue, with a haze of thin clouds. Scattered white birds rise or descend above farm buildings. A fir tree, cut off at the frame, dominates the upper right corner, its cool, minty branches contrasting with the warm, gilded green of the field, and balancing the encroaching shadow at left.

Exquisitely rendered in the soft, dry textures of pastel and black Conté crayon, the picture is suffused with a sense of evening quiet. You feel yourself following Millet’s peasant — or better yet, inhabiting his body — along the path toward the cool tree. The farm buildings and all their familial concerns, oddly evoked by the haphazard configuration of those fluttering birds, are held momentarily at bay by the enveloping green of the field.

Solitude here becomes something to hold onto, something to cherish for just a few minutes more in the penumbral transition between the end of the workday and the beckoning of the evening hearth.

“Path Through the Wheat,’’ which is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in a small but exquisite exhibition called “Millet and Rural France,’’ was made in or around 1867. It was the year of the Exposition Universelle, an extravagant display of art and wonders from around the world in the self-declared capital of civilization. The event attracted kings and queens, tsars and statesmen.

Though it would be crushed by one of those visiting statesmen, Otto von Bismarck, just three years later, France’s Second Empire was for now at its height, intent on projecting an image of urbanity and opulence that was pretty much the opposite of Millet’s dusky, rural realism.

But Millet, having labored in obscurity for many decades, was finally being recognized with a retrospective exhibition. He was awarded the Légion d’honneur the following year.

Millet’s fame had spread to Boston, too, thanks to returning American artists and collectors — among them the artist William Morris Hunt, first president of the MFA, Martin Brimmer, and businessman Quincy Adams Shaw. The enthusiasm of men such as these gradually made the MFA the largest repository of Millet works outside France, and home to celebrated masterpieces such as “The Sower’’ (a work which famously fired the imagination of Vincent van Gogh) and “Harvesters Resting (Ruth and Boaz).’’

This show, intimately presented in a long hallway on the museum’s ground floor, is a chance to see some of the MFA’s Millets that are only rarely displayed, primarily his fragile drawings, pastels, watercolors, and prints, but also a handful of superb paintings.

Sensitively arranged by Helen Burnham, assistant curator of prints and drawings at the museum, the display begins with a dramatic early self-portrait. The young Millet presents himself with long hair, and dressed in black in the manner of a fuming 16th-century Florentine or a determined associate of Delacroix or Stendhal — looking anything, in other words, but rural, and belying the image that subsequently settled around Millet: that of the lifelong land-dweller and friend of the peasant.

It’s true, he was the son of a farmer. But his family was well-to-do and willing to send Millet off to study art. He trained near home as a portrait painter, and then in Paris in the studio of the history painter Paul Delaroche. After failing to win the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1839, he hesitated between Paris and the northwestern port of Cherbourg, eventually settling in Barbizon, the wooded area southeast of Paris. There he would spend the rest of his life.

Millet was one of the 19th century’s great draftsmen, so almost every work in this concentrated show rewards close attention. But among the early works, look out for a portrait of the artist’s second wife, Catherine Lemaire, done around the time Millet moved to Barbizon. Against gray paper that was originally blue (you can see traces of color at the edges), Millet modeled his wife’s rounded head in three-quarter profile, looking down. The soft lighting, the wisps of hair that stray from her silhouette, and the monumentality of the image (we see her from slightly below) give her a breathing, proximate presence.

Note too, a wonderful nude painted in oil a year or two earlier. A seated woman, seen from behind, rests her head on her arms. As with so much of Millet’s best work, the emotion springs from what is lost in shadow, unseen, unknowable.

These and several other drawings, including “Study for Shepherdess Knitting (La Grande Bergère),’’ with its marvelously fleeting shadow effects conveyed by smudged crayon; “Young Woman Spinning,’’ done in red crayon in the 18th century manner; and “Morning Toilette,’’ a Vermeer-like study of a woman at a window adjusting her hair with both hands, are among the many unexpected things turned up by Burnham.

Rather more predictable (they’re what made his reputation) are the many images of peasants in the landscape, with titles like “End of Day,’’ “Shepherd and Flock on the Edge of a Hill, Twilight,’’ and “Watering Horses, Sunset.’’

There’s an in-built sentimentality in such subjects, and over the long term, Millet’s reputation has suffered from it. But to see the sensitivity in Millet’s handling of “contre-jour’’ (or back-lighted) effects, and his way with shadow and encroaching darkness, is to see why artists such as Seurat and Redon fell under his spell.

Millet’s sincere feeling for the timeless nobility of outdoor work is easy to scoff at, especially when you consider that his era was right on the cusp of massively accelerating industrialization, urbanization, and all the political unrest that went with them.

But peasants still made up more than half the population of France, so even if Millet was slightly backward-looking, he was hardly a fantasist.

“The socialists thought Millet was on their side,’’ wrote Camille Pissarro in a letter to his son Lucien, “assuming that . . . this peasant genius who had expressed the sadness of peasant life would necessarily have to be in agreement with their ideas. Not at all.’’

Rather, Millet, who particularly admired the essays of Michel de Montaigne, had a fatalistic view of life. You can feel it in these wonderful images, in service to no cause, but imbued with poetry and feeling.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com

MILLET AND RURAL FRANCE At: Museum of Fine Arts Through May 30. Museum of Fine Arts. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org